He was smiling when he poked his head around the door in Lora Butler’s office, “Hi Butler. My doctor said I have cancer, and I will get therapy.” Cancer. It’s a word that was not familiar to 56-year-old Michael Torres. He does, however, understand the word ‘therapy.’ As an adult who has lived with IDD (intellectual developmental disabilities) his whole life, he is quite familiar with speech therapy, behavioral therapy and psychological therapy. But this therapy, chemotherapy, well, that was new.
Michael is a joyful, trusting and friendly man. He is a prolific artist. He is seldom seen without a coloring book filled with intricately colored images, never coloring outside the lines. Likewise, he proudly wears his WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, replica champion belt. Michael collects and enjoys wrestling action figures, too. Physicians explain that people with IDD function at varying degrees of intellectual ability and independence. Our clients’ chronological age is quite disparate from their intellectual age. What they do enjoy, thanks to organizations like Mission Road, is full, safe and mature lives filled with friends, activity, respect and love.
Michael is a beloved member of our Mission Road Family. He is 24/7/365 Mission Road! He is a resident of Independence Square, one of our three apartment complexes, all special HUD properties, providing safe, social and forever homes for people with IDD. He is a participant in our Free To Be Program – a bustling day activity program typically open year ‘round, Monday through Friday, offering a busy schedule of dances, crafts, sports, swimming, field trips and much more. He is a hard worker, participating in our Job Coach and Community Employment program and is typically our work colleague several hours each day earning money as a member of our Mission Road campus kitchen and maintenance staffs. Of course, COVID has paused these daily activities, but he is eager to return soon.
Cancer. It was a team effort. What Michael needed most was someone to sit with him during his treatment, explain things and help him through it. Due to his intellectual developmental disability, he didn’t and still doesn’t fully understand the seriousness of his illness nor did he fully comprehend the effects of chemotherapy. IDD is a condition, not an illness. It is life long and is not currently curable. It colors all the aspects of his life and makes it especially challenging to grasp the enormity of something like cancer.
“My doctor helped me understand therapy,” Michael said. When asked how the chemotherapy made him feel, he said, “It made me feel good!” Really? Good? “Yes. I was fighting it!” His reaction to losing his hair elicited more of the same surprising enthusiasm. “When I lost my hair everyone thought I was Stone Cold Steve Austin!” Careful and thoughtful explanations were provided by Lora Butler, president of Mission Road Developmental Center, and Toby Summers, CEO of Mission Road Ministries. “Butler and Toby told me that therapy would help me get rid of it. The nurses were nice, too, and they taught me how to roll the pole and the bag around. They made me feel happy when they helped me so I gave them my pictures.”
Marian Smith, his apartment manager, transported him to his therapy and met with one of the five Mission Road leaders who volunteered to sit with him at each chemo appointment. Kathy Slansky, vice president of IT and Innovation at Mission Road and a cancer survivor, comforted Michael at several of his appointments. Kathy, Lora and Toby shared their time to sit quietly to help him understand what cancer is, what chemotherapy is and how he would feel through the experience. They explained he would feel tired, he might want to sleep a lot, he would lose his hair and he might throw up – a more familiar word to Michael than vomit. Our leaders would take him to McDonald’s and even the Dollar Store after his appointments.
His love of wrestling – which permeates his life – is a joy to hear. So, too, is it fun to listen to his gratefulness of living and working at Mission Road. “I miss my day hab and church friends, but I have their pictures on my wall – next to my WWE poster and my champion belt.” There is a twinkle in his eye when he said, “Toby wants my belt but he’ll have to wrestle me for it! Butler will be the referee!”
Michael is in remission. Thank God. On the final day of his chemotherapy, the folks at Mission Road pulled out all the stops and threw a parade for Michael that rivals NYC ticker tape parades. Toby Summers escorted Michael home that afternoon in his bright red convertible Corvette. More than 100 Mission Road staff, clients and Michael’s friends lined our campus’ drive with posters, streamers and music as Michael triumphantly waved and basked in the glory of beating cancer.
Michael’s cancer journey is not unlike one that parents might have with their young children. Michael and people like him must be lovingly shepparded through the experience. These are familiar and frequent challenges faced by the more than 900 people in our daily care. It is our honor to serve each person – helping them through the good times and bad. We share the responsibility to respect their individuality allowing them to understand the challenges of life in terms and words they can understand so that they can ultimately live a life of dignity, health and with as much self-determination as possible.